What can crime writers tell us about plot? Quite a lot. I can’t recall any time a crime writer talked or wrote about the craft of writing and didn’t home in on the subject of plot. James N Frey (author of How to Write a Damn Good Novel) said, ‘No dramatic story has ever been written that is anything other than ‘character through conflict leading to conclusion.’ He expanded this to explain that characters at their maximum capacity will use any and all means available within their particular capacity to achieve their ends. ‘You should always be looking for obstacles for your characters.’ Or as someone else (I forget who) put it: ‘Trap your hero up a tree, and once you’ve got him there, throw rocks at him.’
Patricia Highsmith (who once said ‘Writing is a craft and needs constant practice’) came up with a paragraph in her chatty and discursive Plotting And Writing Suspense Fiction with which most crime writers will agree. It’s worth quoting in full. ‘A plot, after all, should never be a rigid thing in the writer’s mind when he starts to work. I carry this through one step further and believe that a plot should not even be completed. I have to think of my own entertainment, and I like surprises myself. If I know everything that is going to happen, it is not so much fun writing it. But more important is the fact that a flexible plotline lets the characters move and make decisions like living people, gives them a chance to debate with themselves, make choices, take them back and make others, as people do in real life. Rigid plots, even if perfect, may result in a cast of automatons.’
When I first appeared on speaking platforms with fellow crime writers I was genuinely surprised at how many mystery and whodunit writers set out on each new book with only the haziest idea of where the plot might go. Certainly they had highlights in mind and they often had an ending (which they didn’t always reach), but little more. ‘You’re mystery writers,’ people wailed. ‘You write puzzles. You must work the whole thing out in advance?’ Well, the answer is that some writers follow rules; most writers don’t. Some follow this rule, some follow that. It doesn’t mean the rules aren’t useful, because it’s good for anyone to think about advice, even if, after deliberation, they ignore it.
In her Notes On Writing A Novel Margaret Bowen says, ‘Plot might seem to be a matter of choice. It is not. The particular plot for the particular novel is something the novelist is driven to. It is what is left after the whittling away of alternatives.’
The story, she says, involves action: ‘Action towards an end not to be foreseen by the reader, but towards an end which, having been reached, must be seen to have been from the start inevitable.’ Bowen – a non crime writer – does not put character before plot, and she decries the idea (common among less action-oriented novelists) that the function of action is mainly to express the characters:
‘That is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action. Each character is created … to give his or her action verisimilitude.’ Are characters formulaic, then – ‘to be drawn, cut out, jointed, wired, in order to be manipulated for the plot? No,’ she says: such characters would be marionettes, manipulated for the plot. To her, they are found. ‘They reveal themselves slowly to the novelist’s perception – as might fellow travellers seated opposite one in a very dimly lit railway carriage.’
I love that image, summing up as it does those old-fashioned closed coaches where you sat facing strangers, wondering about them, fantasising perhaps, and letting imaginary characters materialise. ‘The novelist’s perception of his characters takes place in the course of the actual writing of the novel.’ Exactly. Characters come from plot. Some writers, I know, insist the opposite: they think of the characters first, set them in motion, and let the characters create the plot. All this shows is that different writers work in different ways. There are no rules. And yet …
On Plot and Character:
E M Forster famously defined “The king died and then the queen died” as a mere story, while “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” was a plot. “The king died, and then the queen died and no one knew why” is an even better plot – a potential crime plot, in which, hopefully, the queen will have died of something more dastardly than grief. A plot is a pattern, more artificial and hence more interesting than real life. (People say that “truth is stranger than fiction” but although true-life events – as reported in the tabloids – can be weird, true-life plots are usually banal, and a single event, no matter how extraordinary, does not make a plot.)
A plot may be an ordered pattern but many crime writers set out on a new novel with only the haziest idea of the plot, letting it emerge as the story unfolds. This is not always a good thing; in many novels – I’m sad to say, in more British novels than in American – the lack of a plan remains apparent in the final draft. In too many books, the story is what that old story-teller Sir Walter Scott damned as an “unconnected course of adventure”, without a pattern – and the plot of many detective novels turns out to be little more than a succession of interviews (albeit dressed up and interrupted with a scene or two of violence). You may enjoy them well enough as you read them, but two weeks later you couldn’t tell me the plot. Because there wasn’t one.
American detective novels (I use this old-fashioned term to cover PI and police procedural stories) are more likely to jazz up the basic straight-line plot; authors rain death or hardship onto the PI’s buddy, and throw in sub-plots about the investigator’s personal life. American plots look as if they’ve been worked on and enlivened with the peaks, plot-points and sudden spin-offs beloved of tutorials.
Some excellent guidelines on plot were set out recently by Washington Post reviewer Patrick Anderson in his assessment of Peter Robinson’s novel Close To Home: Anderson said: “The most basic law, rarely ignored, is that the hero, no matter how overwhelming the challenges, no matter how battered and bloodied along the way, will triumph in the end. To us readers, living in the real world where evil is all too often victorious, the thriller thus offers comfort, an escape to a make-believe landscape where justice is done and happy endings are still possible.”
No wonder crime books appear so often in the book trade’s top ten.